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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Two marijuana bills up for review in NC: Will one finally seal the deal?

Two marijuana bills are working their way through the N.C. General Assembly — one for medicinal use and one for recreational. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

North Carolina is one step closer to making some cannabis products legal, but it still has a ways to go. Two bills, marking significant progress on a controversial issue, are making their way through the N.C. General Assembly: One legalizes medicinal marijuana and the other allows for recreational use in regulated quantities.

Senate Bill 711, also known as the NC Compassionate Care Act, was approved by the Senate Monday. It will head to the House of Representatives for further review, which may not happen until the next session term.

Simultaneously under consideration, Senate Bill 765 would legalize the possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana for individuals 21 and older. 

Primary sponsor of SB 765, Sen. Toby Fitch (D-Edgecombe, Wilson, Halifax) said he believes there’s a world where the two bills can “peacefully exist and work together;” however, just because one passes does not mean the other will. 

READ MORE: N.C. General Assembly takes another stab at passing marijuana bill

“People find whatever reasons to say, ‘yes,’ whatever reasons to say, ‘no,’” Fitch said, referring to legislators. “I think at this point, until you can broaden your horizons, you don’t get positive changes.”

SB 765 is still in the Senate and could face multiple committees before reaching the floor. It’s possible the bill existing concurrently with SB 711 could hinder the outcome of both, so moving forward with medicinal marijuana could be a “pathway” to further legalization, Fitch said.

“I think it’s an easier sell to do compassionate care and then later do recreational. I just don’t know what will be the outcome.”

North Carolina is one of only six states — Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, South Carolina and Wyoming — that have not yet legalized any form of growing, supplying, distributing, possessing or using marijuana. 

“Other people have worked it out in their states,” Fitch said. “We’re always comparing ourselves to our neighbors and this is another situation that ought to follow along the same. We need to go ahead on, enact medicinal purposes.”

Both pieces of legislation would create a commission to oversee the distribution and regulation of marijuana, and require strict guidelines on advertising and packaging.

SB 765 would impose a 21% state sales tax on retail marijuana, products and paraphernalia and allow local governments to impose up to a 3% tax. Generated funds would be controlled by the state and support programs for at-risk youth, substance use disorder prevention and treatment programs and public health programs. 

Thirty percent would be invested in a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which would pay for grants, workforce development and scholarship opportunities for historically marginalized individuals, who have in the past been disproportionately affected by drug enforcement.

The Compassionate Care Act would not tax marijuana for patients who are prescribed the drug. Revenues would only come from the sale of supplier licenses, as well as a portion of distributors’ gross revenue.

Sen. Fitch’s legislation also includes a section on criminal convictions. The bill would allow individuals’ records to be expunged for having been charged with a minor marijuana-related offense. It doesn’t apply to all charges.

“With cannabis, you have what they call simple possession of 1.5 ounces or less, a class 3 misdemeanor,” he explained. “It’s a fine. So pretty much you’ve decriminalized it but still given a person a criminal record.”

The other reason Fitch sponsored the recreational marijuana bill is because he said there is no evidence it’s harmful. The National Library of Medicine reports marijuana helps with pain management, treatment of diseases, such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and relief from anxiety, stress and depression. 

Fitch pointed to military members as a prime example where the use of cannabis proves beneficial.

“Veterans deserve to have every avenue for treatment that makes sense,” Fitch said. “Someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, certified by the military — marijuana can help. That person, whom we say did so much for our country, can’t get something to relieve themselves.”

On June 23, 2021, veterans shared with the general assembly emotional stories of their battles after returning from deployment in an effort to persuade legislators to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana. More than one noted they had contemplated suicide and that marijuana helped alleviate the effects of severe stress and anxiety.

“A lot of my colleagues were moved by the testimony of veterans who are living with PTSD,” Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) said. 

Lee is a primary sponsor of SB 711, along with Sens. Rabon (R-Brunswick) and Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth). “I think their testimony in committee helped change the minds of some people who were not quite sure,” Lee added.

The Compassionate Care Act would legalize the sale of cannabis and cannabis-infused products by a licensed supplier — who would also have to submit monthly revenue payments to the state. Access would be given via a physician’s prescription to patients with debilitating conditions: cancer, epilepsy, HIV, AIDS, ALS, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, Parkinson’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, and wasting syndrome. It also could be prescribed for severe or persistent nausea related to end-of-life care or for patients with a terminal illness who have less than six months to live.

If signed into law, the Tar Heel State could join 36 others that have legalized medical marijuana, along with Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sen. Lee said North Carolina’s version is “much more tightly drafted than other state laws.” 

Marijuana use would not be permitted in public locations, any place of employment, within 1,000 feet of a church, childcare facility or school or in a vehicle. Violators could receive a fine up to $25.

In the works by Sen. Rabon for a few years now, the act has faced scrutiny along the way. It stalled in the N.C. General Assembly last summer, with the fifth edition including changes largely focused on product safety and the avenues through which qualified patients can get a prescription, Lee said.

Physicians wanting to prescribe medical marijuana would have to undergo a 10-hour course before receiving certification. Any individual prescribed medical cannabis would have to register with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and carry an identification card when transporting cannabis products.

The bill would establish two committees. The first would be the Compassionate Use Advisory Board, consisting of 11 members who could add or remove medical conditions upon review.

The other would be the Medical Cannabis Production Commission, also consisting of 11 members, to approve medical cannabis supplier licenses. Only a carrier of one of the 10 issued licenses would be authorized to sell products. Each supplier would be allowed to operate no more than four stores.

To apply for a license, applicants would have to submit a proposal for operating procedures, proof of requisite experience and pay a $50,000 nonrefundable fee, plus $5,000 for each production facility or medical cannabis center. Licenses would be valid for one year and may be renewed.

Suppliers are expected to pay a monthly 10% fee to the NCDHHS of its gross revenue. Up to a $10,000 fine could be issued for financial violations. Production facilities and medical centers are subject to annual inspections, as well as random inspections by the NCDHHS and State Bureau of Investigations, and cannot operate between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“The time is right, and we believe the bill achieves the overarching goals of patient access and safety,” Lee said of the legislation’s progress. “It is the right thing to do for so many who are suffering from debilitating conditions for which they have found no other relief.”

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